On my first trip to Russia, I got a lesson in translation as a language learning method. I met a young man about my age who spoke astonishingly good English, even though he’d never had the opportunity to travel. It was 1990 and Russia was only just opening up to the west.
He explained, proudly, that he’d perfected his knowledge English by translating the whole of The Lord of the Rings into Russian. There was no published Russian version and he was a Tolkien fan and wanted his friends to enjoy the novel.
He proceeded to pull a wedge of papers out of a drawer: the whole type-written manuscript.
Pavel was not the only accomplished linguist I’ve come across over the years who swears by translation as a method of learning languages.
Yet, equally, I’ve come across many learners and – even more – teachers who dismiss it as at best a waste of time, at worst a real hindrance on the quest for fluency.
There’s been a real controversy about translation and you could be forgiven for not knowing whether it’s a worthwhile activity or not.
In this “ultimate guide” we’ll look at how we got here, we’ll look at the arguments against translation and the arguments for translation when you’re learning a language.
If the arguments for convince you, you can then look with me at practical ways that you can use written translation exercises in your language learning. We’ll look from the perspective of beginners, intermediate and advanced students.
How translation went out of fashion
In the 1960s and after translation went out of fashion in the Anglo-Saxon world. This was a reaction to the traditional “grammar-translation” method that had previously been the mainstay of school language classrooms.
Grammar-translation had been developed in the nineteenth century for the teaching Latin and Ancient Greek. Then, the aim had been to understand the grammar of those venerable languages for its own sake and to read their great literatures.
As modern language tuition found a place in the curriculum in the late nineteenth century, the approach was carried over.
Classes typically involved the presentation of vocabulary and grammar. Then there was translation, usually from the target language, into the pupils’ native tongue.
Translation was an effective way of testing comprehension. Good students could typically read and translate and even write quite complex texts, if with the help of a dictionary.
This approach reigned well into the second half of the twentieth century.
But the resultant “schoolboy French” (or German – those were the usual two languages) left the hapless student stranded when let loose in the relevant country. The hapless learner would be unable to order so much as a cup of coffee or understand the a waiter’s reply, let alone take part in a more complex conversation or follow a news bulletin.
How things have changed in recent decades!
In language classes – and self-study courses aimed at adults, too – the emphasis swung to using the target language (L2) in class as much as possible, sometimes – at least in a classroom context – with a more-or-less total ban on the native tongue (L1).
This “communicative” approach has dominated in Western European and North American school rooms.
In such an environment, translation exercises might not feature at all.
Elsewhere, though written translation has remained a mainstay in language education (for example in Russia or Japan).
Arguments against translation exercises
There are several arguments against translation exercises, whether from or into the target language.
Translation encourages misconceptions about how language really works
It can be a bit of a shock to somebody starting their first foreign langauge is that literal, word-for-word translation into the target language often simply doesn’t work.
As a newbie learner, you have to grasp using a new langauge is not just a matter of saying “the same thing” with different sounds. It’s not a mechanical mapping across from one set of words to another.
It’s true that many words and expressions do map pretty neatly and directly from one language to another, especially vocab denoting common basic objects: at a basic level a dog is a “ci” (Welsh) is a “Hund” (German).
Many words and phrases do not correspond so directly though.
Some of these differences reflect the different grammars of the languages.
Others are just superficial differences in convention or style.
Others are down to deeper divergences in worldview (especially when we get to things like emotions or other purely mental concepts).
You come across this lack of direct “mapping” at the earliest stages of your language learning journey:
Take this staple of chapter one of any (and every?) langauge course book:
Hi, I’m Gareth/my name’s Gareth.
In Welsh, you’d say “S’mae Gareth ydw i”. Literally, though, this means “How is Gareth am I”.
In Russian, in the same situation, you might say “Привет меня зовут Гарэт” (“Hello me they call Gareth”).
You see? It can be little bit different from language to language.
To return to matters canine: start to learn more doggy vocab and word-for-word breaks down there too.
German has an equivalent for “to go to the dogs”: “Auf den Hund kommen” – with the preposition “auf” (usually translated as “on”) not “zu” (usually “to”).
A beginning language learner even of languages closely related to English (such as German) pretty quickly discovers that prepositions in particular often don’t translate literally.
If you were a Welsh speaker with weak English you might translate the Welsh “ieithgi” literally as “language dog”. It actually means “someone who’s interested in language” . A “cachgi” (literally a “sh*tting dog”) is a “coward”.
Collocations (commonly used, “fixed” word combinations) are different between languages.
These also pop up more or less from day one.
In English you “play” a musical instrument and “sit” an exam.
In Welsh you (traditionally) sing and stand respectively.
If you’re not careful, your attempts at direct translation will see you making a real mess in your target language.
We might even call it a “dog’s breakfast”.
So, isn’t it far better to avoid translation as early as possible and not to encourage confusion and even misconceptions about how languages really work?
Instead, let’s learn stick with learning chunks of language and practise them as such.
Translation is an inefficient use of time
Even if translation does no active harm, isn’t it a waste of time?
Hours spent poring over how to turn a text from one language into another are hours when you could be getting more exposure – good imput – in your new langauge.
They are hours when you could have been producing more L2 by practising writing or getting out there speaking.
In a classroom situation, translation could even be a lazy way for the teacher just to keep everyone quiet and busy.
Translation is not the only rigorous way of testing comprehension
When I was sitting the entrance exam for my university undergraduate history course, one of the papers was a translation from a foreign language text into English.
Now, historians often have to read texts in foreign languages and it’s often crucial to be able to understand finer nuances.
This could be tested equally rigorously, though, by questions on the text in the target language (such as I’ve had to do far more recently in my advanced Russian and German exam reading papers).
Doesn’t spending time on translation exercises just risk you getting good at a skill you won’t need in real life?Unless, that is, you want a career as a professional translator.
There’s a lot in all these arguments.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. (Does that translate literally into any other languages, I wonder? Answers in the comments below, please.)
Translation makes a comeback
Among language teachers and researchers, translation as a language learning method is enjoying something of a comeback.
In the widest sense, this is part of a broader move from the more extreme forms of the “communicative method” to some readmission of L1 as a language of instruction in the classroom.
More narrowly, we’re realising the value of translation again.
In general, it’s smart for language learners to work round gaps in their knowledge in the interest of “the big picture” and keeping the communicative flow.
So, When you’re reading “extensively” (for pleasure) in L2, or trying to follow the spoken language, I’d encourage you to guess the meaning intelligently from your prior knowledge and context.
When you’re writing freehand (or speaking) you could find a work round – express something in a roundabout way or just avoid expressing something and move on.
Translation helps you tackle weaknesses in vocab, grammar and style head on
But when you come to some focussed work to take your language up a level, it’s sometimes good to tackle the gaps head on.
Having to translate a specific common word or phrase as precisely as possible really puts you on the spot.
You either know an equivalent (even if an imperfect one) or not.
Words or phrases move from being “unknown unknowns” to “known unknowns” and then you can find out how to say them.
Translation helps you “notice” and remember
This act of realising you don’t know and finding out will help you to remember.
Doing written translation exercises into L1 forces you to engage and “notice” things that you don’t understand at an even deeper level than word-for-ford “intensive reading”.
Translation into L2 can flag up stylistic mistakes and patterns of interference from L1.
It’s true that those benefits come from freehand writing in L2 as well but, to repeat, when you’re translating you’re really up against it. You can’t avoid the issue.
Translation makes you more aware of the conventions of your own language and culture
At all levels the difficulties you’ll encounter with translation will make you more aware of your own language and culture.
You’ll thus be better equipped to communicate effectively between cultures. Speaking of that…
Translation is a real-life skill too
Translation might not be so real-life remote after al;.
First, at the beginning stages, the reality is that we often translate from L1 to L2 in our heads, whether or not we engage in formal translation exercises.
It’s often assumed that our aim as language learners is total immersion in the new structures that the learner. We want to enter the cultural and linguistic system of L2 and be more like a native speaker. To “think in the language” is the holy grail.
This generally true, for most of us as learners, but we may well have to do a certain amount of translation for others in real life, too.
For example, in a foreign language environment you may have to translate or interpret in some shape or form.
You may find yourself abroad with a group where you are the only person who speaks the language.
Your task could just be explaining what’s on the menu.
You could be asked to do something more substantial such as explain what’s in an official letter.
Then there’s being asked to interpret spoken language (a whole different skill again).
A study for EU talked of a translation as part of a “fifth skill”, mediation between cultures.
The authors argued that in a world of constant multilingual usage translation can be seen not just as a specialised professional activity but a way in which everybody needs to be able to use language.
The grammar-translation method wasn’t the problem
The old critique of grammar/translation itself falls victim to the fallacy that correlation always equal causation.
It turns out that there’s no neurological evidence that translation harms L2 acquisition.
It wasn’t because they were doing translation that students were unable to speak or understand when out in “real life”. It was because they had spent far too little time practising listening and speaking. This can still be the case (and, regrettably, often is) even when teachers use a communicative method.
That EU study found that some countries used it in their language education (in the state school systems), some not. “There is no country-level evidence that less use of translation in the classroom correlates with higher performance in the other langauge skills, and there are a number of countries that score highly on L2 tests use translation frequently in the classroom”, they said (see para 4.12.1).
Translation is fun?
All in all, don’t be afraid of translation.
It has its benefits.
Plus: if you’re into languages or doing rubrics cube or, for that matter, playing Angry Birds, it can be an enjoyable puzzle.
What, though, should we actually do?
How to use translation in language learning
First, remember there’s a time and a place for translation.
Translation should be in addition to, not instead of practising the four language skills
Don’t spend time on translation when you could have been doings some real-live, down and dirty communicating!
So: you beyond maybe a couple of illustrative phrases, you don’t generally want to be doing translation during a group lesson or a one-on-one lesson or language exchange.
Neither do you want to be stuck at home doing it when an opportunity presents itself to use the language socially.
Keep written translation as one of the things you can do when it’s time to knuckle down to some seriously focussed study time.
Then, you can come back to your teacher to ask for help with difficulties you’ve become aware of and for teacher checking. Just as you would when you’ve been doing some reading or writing.
Translate from your target language and into it
Ok, so you’re ready to do some translation.
But should it be out of or into your target language?
The answer is both.
Translating from L2 in a way parallels reading the language or listening to it.
At all levels, as we’ve seen, translation is one (of several) ways of stepping out of the imput flow of listening or “extensive” reading.
It’s an even more merciless way than “intensive” reading of really testing your comprehension.
The harder of the two directions is translation into L2.
It’s similar to trying to produce in the language when you’re speaking or writing. You’ll find yourself searching for words.
Whatever level you’re at, an effective approach is this:
Begin with a text in your target language.
Translate it into English (or your mother tongue, if different).
Then translate it back into the target language.
Your result will no doubt be different from the original.
You can then explore the differences and have your teacher comment on your translation.
Many experienced language learners have profited greatly from this “translate both ways” approach.
It gives you maximum interaction with your text.
It’s full wrap-around stereo translation.
Two more things to gain maximum benefit:
Chose a relevant text at the right level
First, chose the right text.
It should be something that’s relevant (and preferably interesting) to you and at your level (or maybe even a bit lower).
So, it could be a written text or conversation from your coursebook.
If you’re at the beginner and lower intermediate levels, especially, translating back and forth will help you remember the new vocab and grammar structures.
As yet get more proficient and able to deal with native level material, you could translate a short text on a topic relevant to your hobby or work interests.
Use translation as part of your spaced recall practice
Second, invoke the power of spaced repetition. More accurately, spaced RECALL.
You’ll often remember things much better if you recall them actively after progressively longer intervals.
Translation of texts you’ve worked through already can be a great way of doing this. It’s a way of (re)processing the material. It replaces passive exposure with something active.
At all stages of your language learning journey translation is going to help you remember words and phrases.
There are also certain wins that are more relevant and likely at the different stages of learning a language.
Translation at the different stages of learning a language
Translation for beginner language learners
In the early stages, you’ll become more aware of false friends (as you mistranslate them).
You’ll flag up basic differences in sentence structure.
You’ll become REALLY aware at a basic of the truth that words/phrases not always directly equivalent from one language to another – looking beyond code conversion.
However, remember, your goal at this stage is to get to functional fluency.
Aside from when you’re doing your translation exercises, don’t become obsessed with word-for-word translation or even translating the full underlying idea.
At this stage, understanding the gist of a message and being ready to guess are more important skills.
You should be using those out in the field and in other exposure.
With translation, it’s not “either or”.
Translation for intermediate language learners
As an intermediate student you’ll be focusses on ever finer shades of meaning and more specialised vocab: not “baby dog”, but “puppy”. It is barking, yelping or wining?
For students difficulties at this stage often include phrasal verbs and use of tenses. In German or Russian we might be practising verbs with prefixes and suffixes. Translation can be a great way of flushing out what you don’t yet know in such areas and helping you to remember it.
As intermediate learners we are also getting more into the general “spirit” of the language.
We shouldn’t let translation put us off guessing when we’re out in the field (or reading or listening extensively).
We should still happily settle for the gist when necessary.
Translation for advanced language learners
At the advanced level your aim is to describe and interact with the world through a new linguistic system entirely separate from your L1.
At this level, everything you do at this stage yields less dramatic rewards because you’re trying to push forward along such a long front.
That said, translation still has a role as you inch ahead.
The description of the “mastery” level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (C2) says you should be:
differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
Working with a teacher your translations could be great for that.
At the “C” levels, you may still have coursebooks with interesting texts with which to work.
You are also much more likely to be chosing that specialist interest material.
Should the texts be drawn from the target culture?
A question I’ve faced (at the advanced level, but generally relevant) is whether one should translating material into L2 that relates to the L2 culture?
When I was preparing for my C1 Russian exam, I used the book Russian Prose Composition by F.M. Borras and R. F. Christian (1974 reprint).
The thing was, all the short passages are from classics of modern(ish) English language literature.
Some of these pieces dated from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so some of the vocab would be hardly relevant to modern speech: p. 61 Upton Sinclair on Henry Ford. C2+
Are you really going to need to talk about your own culture so much in L2?
Wouldn’t it be better to enrich your understanding of and ability to describe the L2 culture by translating a text set in the country into its language?
The answer depends on your aims.
Of course, as you progress to the level of a professional translator (or interpreter) (what we might call level D), you need to be able to do both.
Keep translation in its place
As my advanced Russian exam approached, I couldn’t afford the time to keep on with translation.
After all, it wasn’t one of the tasks tested in the exam.
I reverted to freehand compositions in Russian.
That was because I was going to be tested on that.
The time had come to focus on the test.
Yet though my switch was tactical, it also chimed with a deeper feeling: there are often quicker and just as effective ways of getting a lot of the benefits of translation.
For focus on spelling and grammatical accuracy you can just do more writing directly in L2 and get corrective feedback from a tutor.
For style and spelling, other techniques which promise some of the same results are doing dictation exercises or simply copying out native Russian texts (by hand rather than on the computer).
Both will help you develop your “feel” for the language with more and more real world context inside your new “system”.
As will getting lost in reading, listening and speaking. Do enough of all these and you’ll end up “fine-tuning” how the language is used.
That use is, generally, after all, monolingual.
On balance, translation is never going to replace extensive input (reading and listening) and extensive output (speaking and writing).
At all levels, though, as we’ve seen, translation can have a real role to play as a weapon in your language learning arsenal.
The benefits of translation in summary
- translation can be a great tool to help you remember vocab and collocations.
- translation can help you notice different ways of expressing things in your new language and (when you’re translating into L2) it forces you to produce them precisely. These are the reasons it’s used so often by some of the world’s best language learners.
- Plus, translation is a skill in itself that you may need if you’re “mediating” for others between two cultures.
Give translation a go and see if it works for you. Let me know of your experiences in the comments below or shoot me an email.
As you try translation as a language learning method, you may just develop a real taste for it. There’s also a whole translation profession out there. If you’re thinking that translation could be the career for you, check out this revealing interview with a professional translator, packed with insights and practical advice.